Hey all! We’ve been in Gulu less than a week, but already it’s obvious how deeply its culture and society have been fractured by war. The conflict in northern Uganda ended about 12 years ago, and life is more peaceful now; it’s no longer out of the ordinary to go a day without hearing gunshots. But memories of the war remain prominent in the minds of locals, and much of the disruption of daily life has yet to really resolve itself. Many of the people that we’ve met—GWED-G staff member Juliet, our driver Robert, Pam’s brother Edouard, Franny, Pam herself—have had reflections to offer about how life in Gulu was changed by the war.
We saw vivid evidence of this on Monday when GWED-G staff led us into the field for the first time: Columbus took us to see two of GWED-G’s youth groups. We arrived in Patiko after a long drive on terrifyingly bumpy dirt roads, cut through beautiful, vast, palm-and-banana-and-mango-tree-filled grasses, and interviewed the first youth group in the middle of their rice field; the second, in their village, in the shade of a tree. We were there to learn about projects implemented by GWED-G other than GlobeMed’s, but we also got an introduction to a world entirely new to us.
During the war, these youth and their families fled their homes to escape conflict, murder and kidnapping by the LRA, and lived in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps for some or all of the 20-year conflict, camps which often themselves had high rates of famine, violence, and kidnapping. This disruption of daily life caused a fundamental rift in their education. Young people lacked the traditional structures that would ordinarily have promoted cultural and practical learning—schooling and, says Pam, the practice within clans of sitting around a large fire each night, where elders would impart values to youth. In a sense, GWED-G takes on the role of surrogate parenting: its staff members train youth in areas such as entrepreneurship, gender-based violence (GBV), human rights (HR), peace-building, and Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA), to help them cope with the circumstances of their war-affected homes, and gain the skills they need to improve their livelihood; and further, to do so while upholding, and spreading, progressive ideals regarding HR and GBV.
The youth we spoke to praised in particular the role of VSLA training in improving their livelihoods. Rather than spend their money arbitrarily, they said, on alcohol or other things, they began saving the money that they earned each week and combining it with the savings of other group members. They could then take out loans from the communal savings to buy farming supplies, start small businesses, buy livestock, and pay for school fees. GBV training has also had tangible impacts in the community: the level of domestic violence has noticeably decreased as a result of GWED-G trainings, and unhappy families previously suffering from GBV are noticeably brighter and happier, in part because of the sharing rather than division of responsibilities between husbands and wives. And of course, the groups benefitted from the simple act of banding together—being able to tend to their fields as a group, rather than alone.
But the youth groups were also eager to tell us what they still lacked: chemicals to kill weeds, a machine to hull the rice, oxplows and oxen to speed up cultivation, farming tools, better seeds—all things that they requested from GWED-G as livelihood support. I was struck by a sense of helplessness, or a fundamental ineptitude, not because of inability but because of the degree to which the extended conflict had stripped these people of a self-subsistent way of life. They have since started from scratch, and GWED-G aims to set them in the direction of normalcy: not the normalcy that existed before the war, but a new normalcy, in which youth are equipped with progressive values in place of ignorance, and can promote peace rather than propagate conflict.
Our first day of fieldwork was also a resounding testimony to the importance of GWED-G’s work, and to the crucial role it plays in bettering the health and livelihood of war-affected, vulnerable, impoverished individuals. The messages that GWED-G spreads are infectious, and take hold with tenacity in even the most unlikely individuals: yesterday, led by Josephine and Sandra, we interviewed members of women’s groups and male role models who had been transformed from timid, subservient wives or abusively alcoholic husbands to empowered, leading proponents of women’s rights in the community (—we haven’t had time to translate those interviews yet, so more on that later!).
Today, we start work on components of GlobeMed’s HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness project! We’re incredibly excited to finally meet and interact with the individuals that our chapter has been working hard all year to support. More on that later, as well.
That’s all for right now—come back in a couple of days (and keep coming back for the next four weeks) for more updates, thoughts, lessons learned, photos, interviews, and more!
– Helen Zhou